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Hiking off the beaten path

FOR hikers who want some wilderness, the Huihang Old Caravan Trail on the border of Anhui and Zhejiang provinces offers both strenuous and easy routes. Sam Riley camps out.

While climbing the sacred mountains has long been a popular adventure, enjoying some of China's less accessible wilderness areas has attracted hardier travelers, especially young people who prefer enjoying the great outdoors.

For those wanting to swap packed cable car-linked tourist spots for quiet winding walking trails, Zhejiang Province offers some of the best hiking in eastern China. There are also some challenging trails.

Within striking distance of Shanghai, one such trail gaining popularity is the Huihang (Anhui-Hangzhou) Old Caravan Trail on the border of Anhui and Zhejiang provinces.

The ancient stone trail was used by tea traders on horseback to transport their leaves from Anhui to Zhejiang in exchange for grain.

The best-preserved section of the trail starts in Anhui at the village of Yuchuan.

Getting to the village from Shanghai involves an overnight train (12 hours) to the nearby city of Jixi.

The train arrives at 5:30am and, while the dusty city holds few attractions, it does have some tasty street food to try while waiting for the local bus to Yuchuan.

Local women fry ta gao or flat pancake that is stuffed with different vegetables or meats.

We took local advice and our pancakes came stuffed with xiang chun, a seasonal green vegetable grown nearby.

Also not to be missed is the local shui xian bao, a large dumpling either steamed or fried and typically stuffed with pumpkin, winter melon or pork.

The bus station is either a 5-yuan (75 US cents) taxi ride or a 10-minute walk from the train station.

The bus to Yuchuan actually departs from a spot opposite the ticket-selling area and is not immediately apparent for those who do not read Chinese. The entrance through an archway is next to a yellow-and-red sign in Chinese for the Jinjiang Hotel.

The first bus leaves at around 6:10am, with regular buses every 30 minutes.

On arrival at Yuchuan, the route through the maze of alleys is marked by red arrows, with the route leading through golden fields of corn and rice to the gate.

The Huihang Trail has become increasingly popular in recent years, and the signs of development are starting to show.

In the village several guesthouses are under construction, and an alternative shorter tourist walk is being built on the other side of the river that marks the beginning of the trail.

The area around Jixi is also becoming popular with tourists looking for a country escape. It has a number of unusual sites.

Nearby in Zhanzhang valley is a large boulder.

The rock on a river's edge draws thousands of visitors a year.

Those who want to hike the Huihang Trail first buy a 38-yuan ticket and then confront a steep one-hour climb out of the valley on stone steps.

After the climb, the path flattens out for about half an hour and hikers can either keep walking to the small village and traditional resting point of Xu Xue Tang or cross the Qingliang Feng Bridge and head to the hamlet of Shang Xue Tang.

There is a small guesthouse at Shang Xue Tang, which is a great place to stop. Nestled at the midway of the valley, the neat little guesthouse is run by a husband-and-wife team, Hu Guangpeng and Ye Huixian.

Stone Frog

The couple can cater for up to 40 people in their guesthouse but are also happy to feed hungry walkers looking for lunch. Hu is a deft hand at catching the stone frog, a local delicacy.

The frog lives in the river and Hu catches it at night using a torch lamp on his head. The frog is known for its big feet that it uses to grip the rocks and large, powerful legs and is considered a local delicacy.

A steep climb past some goats takes walkers out of the valley and down to the camping area of Lantian'ao. The walk from Yuchuan to Lantian'ao is achievable in around three hours and there are three guesthouses in the camping area.

The Huihang Renjia guesthouse has five cabins with beds for 40 people. Lodging including a shared dinner and basic breakfast costs 50 yuan a night, with an extra five yuan for a warm shower.

From Lantian'ao, hikers have a number of options, which include following the Huihang Trail to a small village in Zhejiang from which they can take a bus to the capital city of Hangzhou (an hour and a half away). The most popular option for hikers is to walk to the top of nearby Qingliang Feng (Qingliang Peak).

The hike takes about three hours from Lantian'ao and it is strenuous. To help lighten your load, you can leave any unwanted equipment in a bag at Lantian'ao and a porter can walk it out to your final destination for 60 yuan.

The walk to the summit of Qingliang Feng first involves a climb to the valley ridge and a 90-minute walk to the camp ground of Yezhutang. The camp ground has basic toilet facilities and no guest houses. But is a good staging point for those looking to camp out and scale the mountain the following day.

Guides can be hired for the day for about 150 yuan and they are recommended for those who want to strike off on their own away from the main path.

Scaling the mountain from the camp site takes three hours.

There are opportunities to buy water along the way, but it is a taxing climb for those who haven't done much exercise prior to the hike.

The walk itself takes hikers through some stunning terrain, hugging the ridge of a valley with cloud-covered peaks on each side.

It winds down through shoulder-high brush before opening out across its first wind-swept peak. The final climb lasts about 45 minutes and is a grueling scramble over large rocks edged by ancient trees.

If attempting the climb from Lantian'ao, the summit is a good place to have lunch and take in the view.

Hikers can then return to Yezhutang before taking a new trail out of the valley to the village of Yonglai.

A guide is recommended for this leg-straining, three-hour descent because the trail has a number of forks that can cause confusion for the uninitiated and maps of the area are unreliable.

The small riverside village of Yonglai is nestled among mountains and makes a charming place to stay for a few days. There are numerous trails around the village that are ideal for short guided hikes and accommodation can be arranged with local families.

A local minibus (seats six) can take walkers out of Yonglai to the nearby city of Changhua (an hour away) for around 120 yuan.

The walk can be done in two days with nights spent in Lantian'ao and, for those wanting the comforts of a hotel room, in Changhua.

But there are any number of possible routes, and hikers who want to soak up the laid-back rural atmosphere can find accommodation at small villages along the way.

A fluent Chinese speaker would be a handy addition to a group wanting to hike what is a rugged and fascinating trail.


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